Thursday, August 21, 2014

Grand house

Despite being one of the most historic buildings in the city, Doveton House is not easily accessible to the public, being situated inside the Women's Christian College in Nungambakkam. Maybe it is just as well, for the college has been able to maintain the building in possibly the same shape it was constructed, well renovated and with few, if any, modifications. Coming in from the main gate of the college, we get to see this magnificent building, constructed in 1798 from the designs of Benjamin Roebuck, an architect in the service of the East India Company. The purpose for which it was built is not very clear, but in the early 19th century, it appears to have passed into 'native' hands. It is said that Lieutenant General John Doveton, in whose name it continues to be known today, acquired it from a Linghi Chetty in 1837. As to whether that was the same Linghi Chetty who has a road named after him in George Town, your guess is as good as mine.

It is said that when Lt. Gen Doveton died in 1847, he bequeathed the property to a "brahmin family". Little is known of that bequest, but within a few years, Doveton House had become Company property, with the East India Company using it as accommodation for its troops and officers. In 1875, it was used for a different purpose: as the venue for the house arrest of Malharrao Gaekwad of Baroda, for his role in the attempted poisoning of Col. Sir Robert Phayre, the British Resident of Baroda. Much later, in 1914, it was the venue of the 29th session of the Indian National Congress, which was historic if only for Lord Pentland, the Governor of Madras, dropping in on the proceedings.

In 1916, Doveton House and other buildings in the 11 acres of its gardens were bought by the Women's Christian College. A description by Dr. Eleanor McDougall, the first principal of the college, describes it as having "stabling for twenty horses, a band stand...the tallest porch in Madras". The purchase was funded by by a gift of $25,000 from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Legacy. John D. Rockefeller's munificence continued in the form of further funding for building a chapel and a science block. The college continued to grow over the years, but Doveton House has remained its nucleus, housing the Principal's office on its ground floor. As I said earlier, the building remains true to its original construction, but try as I did, I could not make out where the "...little tower", as Dr. McDougall wrote, "for monkeys to live in..." could have been!

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